How Do We Continue Moving Green Button Data And APIs Forward?
17 Sep 2014
I'm preparing for a talk at the The Smart Grid Interoperability Panel Second Annual Conference, in Nashville Tennessee, specifically participating on a panel titled "Using Power Grid Open Data Initiatives". I accepted the request to go speak as part of my wider work on the Green Button iniative out of The White House, DOE, NIST, and the GSA. I was asked to provide some thoughts on how to help move the Green Button efforts forward earlier this winter, and again in the spring, and just haven't had the bandwidth to give any energy, so I saw this as a great opportunity to make some time as part of this panel.
In May, The White House, 18F, some Presidential Innovation Fellows, and myself were asked to move the Green Button ball forward, resulting in a new website, and developer area that is all hosted on Github. I'm bummed I wasn't able to make time to participate, but now I have been able to go through the new site, and developer area, and gather my thoughts on where we could go next with the effort.
Before we get started, lets start with the basics, what is Green Button? Nick Sinai (@NickSinai), Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States, puts it this way:
Green Button is a policy idea. It's the notion that customers – residential, commercial, industrial, and yes, government customers of energy – ought to get access to their own energy data, in a standard digital format. The Administration has articulated this several times, in a number of Administration energy, climate, and smart grid policy documents. The government is a big customer of energy, and we deserve our own energy usage and price data.
Green Button is also a public-private initiative, in response to a 2011 White House call to action. The White House, DOE, NIST, and GSA have been collaborating with the utility and tech industries on this growing effort for a few years now. The White House has been convening industry and celebrating its progress. NIST has been supporting industry on development of the standard, DOE has been working with utilities, and GSA has been an early adopter.
Finally, Green Button is an actual data standard, for formatting and transferring energy usage and price data. This standard can be implemented in both utility and non-utility contexts. Customers can manually download or upload a file formatted in the standard, and IT systems can automatically transfer data between them using the standard.
The White House, 18F, and fellow PIFs, have done a great job organizing everything under a single, Github pages site, at greenbuttondata.org. The site is a big improvement over what was there before, and moves us closer to solving the fragmentation in the Green Button effort, which I believe is the fundamental issue that is holding it back from being fully realized. Green Button is a big vision, and it is going to take some serious effort to bring together all of the industry, and 3rd party efforts, and most importantly getting individual consumers on-board with taking control over their own energy data.
To help organize my thoughts on how we can move Green Button forward, something I will be discussing on stage in Nashville, I wanted to walk through the site, and take a snapshot of where we are at, then work on a strategy for what is needed to keep the momentum we already have moving forward. Green Button is an extremely critical effort in not just empowering individuals and institutions to take control over their energy data, but also for the overall health of the energy sector, and whether the utility companies can see it or not, open data and APIs will be central to their continued success. So as I do with other areas, let's walk through where we are at currently with Green Button, to help prime the discussion about where we should go.
When you land on the greenbuttondata.org site, it looks like a modern, clean website effort, with a simple tagline and meaningful image to help you understand what Green Button is all about. The first description is "Helping You Find and Use Your Energy Data", and then when you scroll down you see an answer to the question What is Green Button? -- "Green Button is a secure way to get your energy usage information electronically. I like the concise messaging, but it is solely focused on the consumer, and leaves out the commercial energy users, public institutions, utilities & energy service providers, 3rd party software vendors, and energy efficiency organizations listed on the "use" page. I know this all revolves around energy data, but when you land on site, you should have the site speak to you, no matter who you are.
I think the "use" page does a great job in breaking down who the target audience is, but the first impression doesn't reflect this, and I don't think there is any path for these users to follow, once you do find yourself on greenbuttondata.org. As a data custodian, or 3rd party developer, I think the build or developer page will quickly speak to you, but as a consumer, you are quickly dropped from the focus of the site and will be completely lost in the rich information that is available. To on-board each user properly, we will need to begin to carve out paths for each user, one that start with a meaningful first impression off of the home page, then puts them on a path that leads them twoard action and the relevant resources they will need, depending on their role.
Learn About Green Button
I really like the learn page for Green Button. It is clean, simple, informative, and not overwhelming for me to learn about what Green Button is, from any perspectives. My only suggestions for next steps is that we begin massaging some of the rich content available under "library", and link to specific learning opportunities from this page. Each summary should provide users with links to follow, taking them to the detail they will need to fully understand each aspect of Green Button as it pertains to their position. However, with that said it is critical to keep this page a simple overview of Green Button, and make it an easy doorway to the world of energy data.
Using Green Button
As I said above, the "use" section provides a nice overview of who should be using Green Button, with sections focusing on commercial energy users, public institutions, utilities & energy service providers, 3rd party software vendors, and energy efficiency organizations, as well residential consumers. What is needed for each of these sections, is a clear call to action, taking you to another page that is a "getting started" specifically targeting your role in the Green Button movement. I don't think the lack of this, is a deficiency of what is currently there, it is just the next logical step for evolving this page to better onboard users, now that these roles are better defined.
The Green Button Community
This is the first time I've seen the Green Button community reflected on a single page like this, and is exactly what is needed to help reduce the fragmentation currently present across the community. Presenting the four groups in this way, complete with links to their sites, and relevant contact information to get involved, is very important for bringing together the community. My only critique is that the page could use a little more layout love, formatting, logos, and some polish to keep it looking as good as the rest of the site—nothing major. Eventually it would also be nice to have some sort of stream of activity across all of these efforts, aggregated here. I'm not sure how this would occur, as the groups are all using different ways to keep members informed, but something should be considered, further bringing together the community.
Build With Green Button
The developers section probably needs the most help right now, and I'm not 100% sure of how to make more coherent. It is a little redundant and circular, and its called "build" on home page, and "developers" in the top navigation, something that should be consistent. The RESTful APIs is represented twice, and i see glimpses of trying to provide separate information for data stewards, and 3rd party developers. Along with the development of specific paths for different target users, this needs to be reworked, and woven into those efforts, but I do like the focus on the open source nature of Green Button. The first time I landed on Green Button, I didn't fully grasp that it was an open source API that anyone can deploy, and that the sandbox version that is in operation is just a demo, something that I think we need to make fully clear to users of all types.
We have a big challenge ahead when it comes to helping data custodians understand what is possible, and hopefully we can help spur 3rd party developers in not just build around existing Green Button code, but also work to develop new versions in other languages, as well as specific cloud offerings on maybe Amazon or Heroku. The sky is the limit when it comes to developing, and building Green Button solutions, both server and client side, and we need to make the separation as clear as possible. It will take some serious architectural vision to help bridge what code is currently available for Green Button, and stimulate commercial energy users, public institutions, utilities & energy service providers, 3rd party software vendors, and energy efficiency organizations in understanding what is possible, and incentivize them to deliver solutions that are quickly deployable across the cloud landscape.
Green Button Library
As with the "learn" and "use" sections of the site, the current library section was a great step forward in bringing together the wealth of current resources available to support Green Button efforts. What is needed now is just the refinement of what is there, making it easier to access, and learn from, while also making sure that resources are appropriately grouped into buckets targeting each of the Green Button user groups. As I'm working through the the library of materials, I can see there are some seriously rich resource available, but there is a lot of disconnect between them because they are designed, developed and deployed to support different goals, by different authors—we need to establish some consistency between them.
Right now the library is very much a list of resources, and it would be nice to make sure it truly is a library that is organized, indexable, and is easy to navigate. Having all of these resources in a single location is an excellent start, but how do we start refining them, and making them much more usable by all users? Documents should have a consistent document formats, videos should have single Youtube (or other) channel, and much more. All of this would make it much more likely that these resources would be explored, an consumed by a wider audience, beyond just the alpha geek crowd.
Green Button Testing Tools
I'm happy to see the Green Button testing tool here, but ultimately it feels like one tool, that should be in a toolbox. Right now it is its own top level navigation item, and I don't think a single tool should be elevated to this level. I would change this to tools, and make the testing tool the one item in the toolbox right now, and I'm sure there are others we can quickly add to the toolbox as well. As with other areas, we should break down the toolbox by user group, making sure consumers easily find what they need, as well as utility providers, 3rd party developers and the other user groups.
Getting Started With Green Button
I was excited to see the Getting Started button, until I realized it was just an email address. ;-( That isn't getting started, it is sending an email. Getting started should be prominent, and truly provide users with easy paths to well...get started. If you are data custodian, utility, or energy provider, you should have a simple page that explains how to get started, in a self-service way—no email needed. Separately, there should be contact information for Green Button, something that hopefully includes much more than just an email address, with no face and personality behind it.
Acknowledging Where We Are
That is a quick walkthrough of where things are at with greenbuttondata.org, and in my opinion, things have come a long ways from what I was seeing spread across the Green Button landscape this last winter. Most importantly it is aggregating the community, developer, and the wealth of other resources into a library, which is a very critical step to continue moving Green Button forward. In my opinion the v1 tech of Green Button tech is in place, it is just lacking all the refinement, storytelling, and relationship building that is necessary to move Green Button into the consciousness of utility companies, 3rd party developers, and the average, everyday energy consumer—so how do we do this?
Green Button Needs A Champion
First, before we get into any of the nuts and bolts of what we can do to keep greenbuttondata.org rolling forward, the project is going to need a champion. I think The White House, DOE, NIST, and GSA are doing an amazing job of making sure things move forward, but greenbuttondata.org needs someone who is super passionate about energy data, APIs, understands the energy industry, and wants to put in the hours necessary to refine the information currently available, build relationships, and generate new content that will bring in new players. This role isn't some cushy job that you will get a regular paycheck for, but for the right person, I think it could be pretty lucrative, if you get creative in piecing together sponsorship and support from industry players, organizations, and worked hard on the grant writing front. Essentially you need The API Evangelist, for energy data and APIs.
Who's offering Green Button?
I think the first place to start is visible right on the home page, and looking at who is already putting Green Button data to work. I see 50+ entities who are already putting Green Button to work, so who are these people, and how can we showcase what they are up to. There are some meaningful implementations here, and I know there is some great material here to demonstrate the power, and importance of Green Button, and help spark the imagination of new visitors. Green Button has traction, the problem is not enough people know about it, or have the imagination to understand how it is being used. Let's take the time to showcase this, and create some really great content that will make the site more educational. This is something that can be led by the Green Button evangelist I talk about above, but is also something I think the community should also contribute to. I'm going to carve out some time to reach out to some of the providers listed, and see if i can showcase how they are putting Green Button to work, and generate more detail, and content that can be contributed to greenbuttondata.org. Do you want to help?
Showcase Of How Green Button Is Used
Building on the work above, we need a place to showcase how Green Button is being put to use. I'm not sure this should be a top level navigation item, but if we group each entry in the showcase, by the type of user, I think we can make it one stop of the path each user takes, as they learn about Green Button. As each commercial energy users, public institutions, utilities & energy service providers, 3rd party software vendors, and energy efficiency organizations, and individual energy users is learning about Green Button, they should also be exposed to examples of other similar individuals or companies like them that are already putting Green Button to work. This will go a long way in helping people see the potential of Green Button, and begin the journey of putting it to work across the energy industry landscape in new ways.
Blog For Bringing Green Button To Life
The greenbuttondata.org site needs a blog. This is something that will be difficult without a champion to keep alive, but a blog is going to be essential in bringing the site to life, helping share stories about the value Green Button is bringing to companies, organizations, institutions, and most importantly the average consumer. Without a blog, any developer community will not have a soul, or a personality, and it will be difficult to convince anyone that someone is home, and that they should trust and care about Green Button. I think a blog could easily be crowdsourced, allowing passionate folks like myself to post, as well as other organizations, companies, and key stakeholders to post relevant stories, that will give the site a heartbeat. A blog will be central to any of the suggestions I will have to help move things forward, and give greenbuttondata.org a personality that will go a long way in building trust amongst users, and across the industry.
Giving Some Coherence To The Developers Section
The developer section of greenbuttondata.org will be essential to scaling the effort, and right now the page is a little all over the place, and will take some significant effort to simplify, make usable, and bring the wealth of developer resources into focus. This will take some serious work, by someone who is a developer, architect, and can make actually organize everything into something that easily on-boards data custodians, and 3rd party developers with as little friction as possible. You have to walk them through the wealth of tooling that is already available, show them what is possible, and then give them the downloads they need to get things working in their world.
There is also a need for some other additional tooling, some of the current solutions are very enterprise oriented, and I think with some encouragement, providers could replicate Green Button tooling in other languages like Node.js, Python, PHP, and other platforms that will encourage rapid adoption by other providers. There also needs to be some ways to help people quickly bring Green Button to life using cloud platforms like AWS, Heroku, Google, Azure and other platforms that companies and individuals are already depending on.
The developer section is something that will take some deep thinking, hacking, and architectural magic from the champion, and Green Button evangelist. They will have to look at it through the eyes of each of the data custodians, and 3rd party developers who are already putting Green Button to use, and try to deliver things in a way that will speak to this, as well as potentially other new users. This type of work is not easy, and takes some serious effort, something you can't expect to happen overnight. However, if it is done right this can really help scale the number of Green Button implementations in the wild, and take things to the next level much quicker.
Turning The Library Into A Consistent Resource
I am happy to see all of the rich Green Button resources brought into a single location, but I wouldn't call it quite a library yet. It is a listing of valuable resources, that aren't really organized in a way that speaks to the different Green Button users, and are not consistent in form because they come from different sources. Even with this said, their is a wealth of resources available there, and with some work you could build a really nice, interactive library that can help educate users on how to put Green Button to work. Similar to the showcase, once the library is organized, and grouped by target user, I think the library can be a stop on the path that each user takes, showing them exactly the resources they need in the library to help onboard them properly.
Establishing Paths For Green Button Users
As I discussed above, each user needs a path they can take from the "use" page to begin their journey. Right now the "use" page is a dead end, where it should actually be a call to action, providing each visitor the chance to take a path through the site that speaks to them, without forcing them to have to wade through the wealth of resources that are currently there. From the "use" page, each user can be taken to a showcase of other implementations from similar users, then depending on their role, could be walk through other sections of the site, landing in the library, presenting with exactly what they need to get going. I'm not exactly sure what the user experience will be on these new paths, but I think once we profile the existing uses of Green Button, and unwind the developer and library resources, a pretty orderly route can be established for each user group. These paths will go a long way to onboard users in a fraction of the time, and maximize the potential reach, and scale of the platform—adding more implementations to the Green Button platform, and scaling the audience with each new user.
Taking Green Button From Site to Community
I will stop here. I think this is all that should be focused on for now, when it comes to moving Green Button forward. It is important to not bite off too much, and make sure we can be successful in moving things forward, and not make things more complex. The goal is to simplify what we have, now that we have everything organized into a single site, and begin the process of bringing greenbuttondata.org to life. With someone at the helm, an active blog, and a more coherent focus on each user group, I think that things will start picking up steam, and with more outreach, and involvement with existing Green Button implementations, and the existing Green Button community, we can move greenbuttondata.org from being just a site, and put it on its way to becoming a community.
It is important that Green Button evolves to become a community. It cannot remain just a government initiative. Green Button has to be a vibrant community that commercial energy users, public institutions, utilities & energy service providers, 3rd party software vendors, energy efficiency organizations, and individual energy users are all part of, otherwise it will always remain just something being pushed from the top down. Green Button has to be also owned by the individual energy users, and institutions, providing essential bottom up momentum to match the energy given from the top by the federal government partners—without this the energy industry will never buy in.
Profiling the existing Green Button implementations, and making the site speak to each of the user groups will be important for taking things to the next step. This process will help communicate to a next generation of implementations what is possible, and through regular showcasing and storytelling we can move Green Button beyond just a policy idea, and initiative from government, or just a technical data standard, and transform it into something that is a default part of the energy industry. In this new world, energy users will be used to having control over their data, and entirely new markets will be established delivering services to energy consumers, within this new space.
All the parts and pieces are there, and much like last round of work on the greenbuttondata.org site brought all these resources together, we need to figure out how to bring the energy industry together and show them the potential of Green Button data and APIs. We need to make sure energy consumers, both individual and institutional, understand the importance of having control over their energy data, and show data custodians that this is the future of doing business in the energy space. Once we can achieve this, Green Button will take on a life of its own, driven not just by the government, or even the utility providers, but by the energy of 3rd party companies who are delivering meaningful solutions for institutional, organizational, and individual energy consumers.